Rawlings-Blake defends handling of Baltimore rioting

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake defended her handling of the recent rioting in Baltimore, arguing Tuesday that more aggressive police or military tactics could have escalated the violence.

"Nobody died during the riots," Rawlings-Blake said. "Out of the two weeks of demonstrations, we only had a few hours of unrest, and then we were able to restore peace and calm. ...


"If you take a look at the overwhelming amount of officers who responded, they did a masterful job of responding and keeping peace and calm. They showed an amazing amount of restraint. Had they been different, the outcome of [that] Monday could have been substantially different," she said.

The mayor and Gov. Larry Hogan sat for separate interviews Tuesday with The Baltimore Sun to discuss their responses to the unrest in Baltimore. More than 200 people were arrested during the worst of the rioting April 27, with more than 350 businesses damaged, 113 officers injured, and 19 buildings and 144 vehicles set on fire.

The two leaders argued that the violence could have been much worse.

"Both of us were working as hard as we could to try to do the best job we could to help Baltimore," Hogan said. "Sometimes we agreed, and sometimes we didn't. But I think we worked together pretty well, and the result was pretty good. ... By the time we got together on Monday night, almost immediately everything stopped."

Last month, Hogan said Rawlings-Blake did not return his repeated phone calls for more than two hours as rioting spread across the city, causing him to wait rather than call in the National Guard without her.

"A lot has been made about this back-and-forth and rift [with] the mayor," Hogan said Tuesday. "I look at it as we're both passionate people, we were in the middle of a crisis. ... I've said multiple times I think she did a good job. People kept trying to create more of a controversy, and I just wouldn't take the bait. I didn't want to criticize her, and I didn't think she deserved some of the criticism."

Asked about her relationship with Hogan, Rawlings-Blake said, "I will continue to work with anyone who wants to work to move Baltimore forward."

Baltimore descended into rioting hours after the funeral of Freddie Gray, 25, who died after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. Hogan declared a state of emergency and called in the National Guard to help keep order.

The violence that day began with students throwing rocks at police at Mondawmin Mall and exploded into looting and fires throughout the city. Rawlings-Blake has faced criticism over what some perceived as a reluctance to order the Police Department to engage rioters.

Her voice broke Tuesday as she addressed that criticism.

"To hear people say, you let our city burn... I love this city. I love what I do. But it comes at tremendous personal sacrifice," Rawlings-Blake said. "To hear that — all I've ever wanted to do is to make our city better."

She contrasted the Baltimore Police Department's response to that in other cities. For instance, Ferguson, Mo., was the site of months of protesting that turned violent at times. Looting, vandalism and fires broke out in the months after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen. Thousands of National Guard troops were deployed, and protesters encountered rubber bullets, tear gas, officers wearing riot gear and armored vehicles.

"If you look at other jurisdictions around the country that have jumped the gun on bringing in a militarized response, you'll see how that has escalated and caused that few hours to go into days," Rawlings-Blake said. "You've seen that militarization of a city turn into violence."

Hogan, too, was emotional as he discussed the April 27 rioting. He said that after midnight, when fires had been extinguished, he went to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center to meet with 15 officers and two firefighters hurt that night.


"There were guys crying; I was hugging them," Hogan said. "It was a wrenching emotional experience."

He said his security detail insisted on taking him back to Annapolis, where he arrived at 3 a.m. and spent a fitful hour trying to sleep before he gave up and resolved to return to Baltimore by sunrise.

"I felt a really strong desire to do everything I could to help the city. I felt like my leadership was really needed. It was like: 'This was going to be a huge test for me. I hope I'm strong enough,'" he said.

He and Rawlings-Blake said they would be prepared to call in the National Guard again if protesting were to grow violent during court decisions involving the Baltimore officers charged in the Gray case.

"I think we would [do] just what we did this time," Hogan said.

Still, some observers cautioned against painting too rosy of a picture about the mayor's response to the rioting.

"To say, 'Overwhelmingly, the demonstrations were peaceful and there was only one night of rioting,' is like saying, 'Right up until Lincoln got shot he had a great time at the play,' said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "No one is focused on what happened before the rioting. The key is what happened once it became clear that the situation was out of control. Nobody suggested to militarize the situation when the protests were peaceful."

Eberly said Rawlings-Blake and Hogan did a lot right, and they deserve credit for that. But mistakes were made, he said, "that should be acknowledged and discussed openly."

For the mayor's part, Eberly said, a more effective message to the public is to talk about how she spent the night: talking to her advisers, traveling between key operation sites, remaining in contact with the governor.

Doug Ward, director of the Johns Hopkins University's Division of Public Safety Leadership, said that luck more than successful strategy prevented more pervasive violence that night.

"Baltimore was lucky," Ward said. "The fact is, if the rioters were more violent and decided to do more harm, for instance, to the people driving down the street, a lot of people could have been killed. The police were nowhere to be seen."

Ward said he agrees with Rawlings-Blake's decision to be cautious about escalating the situation by calling in a "militarized response." But, he said, more law enforcement personnel should have been immediately available, stationed at nearby armories, for example.

He pointed to the response of police in Washington about 15 years ago over demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He said police interacted with protesters wearing their standard uniforms, but "a block away there were tanks."

"It's easy for all of us to look back and second guess," he said. "When you're planning for these operations, you have to assume, 'What's the worst situation that could occur, and how to do we plan for it?'"